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Columns | Spring 2017

Thoughts To Chew

A Key to the Story Vault

The theme for this issue of Pass It On! is “the road less traveled.” I think most Children’s Music Network members are already on a less traveled path by virtue of what we do. Our other option, the Road Most Traveled, the Main Road, is lined with stories and lessons from our culture that immerse us as we grow up and teach us lessons such as “if you want to be happy, make as much money as you can!” These are lessons about how others in our culture want us to behave, sometimes patriotic and spiritually uplifting, but often laden with hidden messages that model various skills no longer relevant or useful for building an informed and conscious future for our planet. “Girls can’t do that!” Or “Just follow the leaders. They know what’s best for us!” These Main Road stories get absorbed through our skin and our ears and our eyes, and from the thousands of ads we see, in comments made by friends and parents, and in our rituals and the awards we give to our heroes. They are present in the behaviors we observe in our lives, in our media, movies, television, and Internet.

Early on, many of us started down the Road Most Traveled, but we stepped off and chose not to follow that path. We learned that the Main Road often requires blinders to stay on it. And yet, even with this knowledge, we still have our own Main Road stories stashed safely away in our secret story vaults.

It didn’t take long to learn that playing music with kids and their families is not a yellow brick road to financial security, but nevertheless, we continue to sing! We found truth in a different story that proposed “playing music and singing songs may not make us lots of money, but it can bring us a rich life, full of meaning, fun, silliness, and joy!” As we travel our path we are reminded of the different choice we made when we see thousands of others still on the Main Road who used to sing or play an instrument but decided to stop because they believed an old Main Road story they were taught.

“I have a job!” they say, “what’s the point of wasting my precious time practicing the bassoon? Can’t make much money doing that!”

So what are some of these old stories we’ve hidden away, long forgotten, that still affect us and influence our ability to adapt to changes we need to make in this American culture of ours? There’s always “Get as much attention as I can! Even negative attention is better than being ignored.” Or “Why should I give up my privileges? I wouldn’t have them if I didn’t deserve them.” These stories reflect a less cooperative, less caring, and less just future, so what stories can we embrace on our “path less followed” that might help us lift ourselves and each other in these troubling times?

One of the strongest assets we have as family performers is knowing that our less traveled path can take us to the door of anyone’s hidden “story vault.” It’s the place where each of us stores our most sacred stories, where we’ve internalized tales and images about who we are, what we are doing here, and how we want to be seen by others. The fire in our own bellies fuels our curiosity about the stories in our own vaults. That’s what gives us the key to help others explore their own closely held stories. In turn, understanding our stories gives us the key to help others explore their own closely held beliefs. This is where change occurs! So many of the out-of-balance behaviors we see in others (and ourselves), come from the stories we hold to be true, but are no longer so.

So in our performances and on our recordings and with our song choices, we can share how we’ve confronted inaccurate stories we’ve been holding and model conscious decision-making so they will work better for us in our world.

When we were children, many of us believed that our fathers and mothers could do no wrong. Then, as we grew older, we changed that story and believed they could do nothing right! And as we became fathers and mothers ourselves, we shifted our story again to see our parents as people who mostly tried to do their best. Some of us learned about and added the element of forgiveness to our “parenting story”—not to condone things that our parents may have done, but because we learned that if we are to get unstuck from our old story, we have to learn to forgive so we can move on to another, more useful story about who our parents really are.

As children’s performers and writers, many of us work hard to counteract the Main Road stories we’ve absorbed. We continue to explore our stories and listen with “new ears” to their teachings and morals. We alter old stories and give them new clarity. We make up and tell new stories. We write and sing songs to cultivate and pass on the idea that we can make a difference in creating a healthier, safer, more caring world. We make the effort because we know we can only teach that which we have learned.

After our concerts, we want the kids in our audience—and especially the parents and grandparents who are the keepers of the family stories—to have a clearer understanding of how our songs and stories affect and tailor our behaviors. We want them to explore with us how we can edit and positively transform the stories for ourselves and our families. My favorite response from the parents at a show is “As I listened to you tonight, I thought, gee! I do that to my kid! Maybe I ought to cut that out!”

Here is an old Main Road story of mine that I’m still exploring and working to change. It needs a readjustment, as it doesn’t fit well with my current beliefs. As Battalion Commander of our high school corps of cadets at Admiral Farragut Academy, I felt proud of both my country and myself. I remember standing at attention on the parade grounds in full dress at “present arms!” My heart pounded to the strains of our band playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the gathered crowd solemnly recited the Pledge of Allegiance: “...one Nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

But now I wonder, “under God”? Which God? Does Allah count? What about Yahweh? Shiva? Jesus? And “liberty and justice” for whom? Rich people? Poor people? Does this apply to single moms? White males? Dreamers? Dark-skinned people? I’m still lifted by so many of the high-minded ideals in our Constitution and our national heritage, but I’m not so proud of many of our actual behaviors. One of the Ten Commandments in the Bible is “Thou shalt not kill,” and yet we have Christian political and religious leaders who sign off on drone attacks and will not take action on the simplest of gun control legislation. One of our biggest national exports is military arms.

A Main Road story I learned was that “the opposite of Love is Hate,” but my story now is “the opposite of Love is Fear.” That helps me understand why people are not so loving. They are afraid.

Cognitive dissonance is when a belief or story we hold does not match with our behavior. It’s the conflict of an old belief or story crashing against circumstances that don’t fit the old story. It’s one of the major causes of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. It happens when soldiers come home from what they thought was a “just war,” and their story does not fit their experience, either overseas or upon return. It happens when children are abused by people they trust. It happens when the police officer on our corner does not act like he or she is really our friend. When our stories tell us that America is the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” and we see and experience the overt racism in our judicial, legal, and prison systems and observe the widespread fear about anyone who is “different,” it becomes difficult to reconcile the dissonance.

Fortunately we have artists, poets, and songwriters who hold up mirrors for us to see these conflicting stories, in the hopes that our collective discomfort becomes strong enough to goad us to take action to change our behaviors and disassociate ourselves from old stories that are no longer true. A powerful musical example is “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” from South Pacific, written in 1949 by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. The thought-provoking lyrics resonate as if they were written yesterday, as unfortunately these Main Road issues of intolerance, racism, and non-acceptance of the others still confound our society today.

You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught
by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Copyright © 1949 by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.
Copyright renewed by Williamson Music, owner of publication and allied rights throughout the world. International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission.

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear—
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a different shade—
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate—
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Here are a few Main Road stories you may have learned as a child. Do you believe them now?

“I cannot tell a lie.”
—General George Washington

“As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
—The Bible, I Corinthians, 14:34-35

Tootle, a Little Golden Book by Gertrude Crampton, was one of the stories in my vault that I loved as a kid. It was about a little train that didn’t want to stay on the tracks, even though Engineer Bill told him to “always stay on the tracks!” Tootle went off the tracks and ran in the flowering fields with his friend, a black pony, and he came home to the wheelhouse every night with flowers and mud lodged in his driving wheels. Finally, fed up with Tootle’s behavior (oppositional defiant disorder wasn’t invented yet!), Engineer Bill got all the townspeople to hide behind bushes with red signs forcing Tootle to get back on the track and stay…like a good little train should! Strangely, when I saw the book again as an adult, I only remembered the “let’s get off the tracks and into the mud” part of the story. Egad! I was astonished at the message about the importance of such strict adherence to following the rules. It ended poorly for Tootle, in my opinion, as he was forced back onto the Road Most Traveled. He tried the “path less traveled” and was ostracized and punished for it!

Some of us write songs to help kids grow up with a different, more empowered story.

My Body
by Peter Alsop
© 1983, Moose School Music (BMI)

My body’s nobody’s body but mine
You run your own body, let me run mine!
Sometimes it’s hard to say “No!” and be strong
When those “No!” feelings come, then I know something’s wrong
‘Cause my body’s mine from my head to my toe
Please leave it alone when you hear me say “No!”

If we are not storytellers or songwriters, we can share or perform songs and stories that overflow with wonderful messages. Besides their inherent value, they are a gift for us when we use them to help us do our own personal work. Here are a few stories for kids that have really helped many families make these discoveries.

“You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
—Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

“A person’s a person, no matter how small!”
—Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Horton Hears A Who

“It is far more difficult to judge oneself than to judge others. If you succeed in judging yourself correctly, then you are truly a man of wisdom.”
—Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

It’s because we journey on the “less traveled path” that we have an informed perspective and an opportunity to help parents cope with many of the complicated issues we face while raising our children in these difficult times. We have a key to the door of their secret story vault, and through our songs and stories, we have a pulpit to gently model, share, and pass on some of what we’ve learned about ourselves to help parents explore and exchange some of their own old stories for new and different songs and tales. As each of us learns to match our outside behaviors with our inside stories, the world becomes more caring, and the less traveled path becomes easier for the kids, the parents, and all of us.

A Special Note from Stuart Stotts:

CMN is a great forum for practical career questions such as “What kind of sound system? How to get booked? Contracts? Song topics?” It’s also a place to address larger questions about philosophy, values, and social change. As artists, we need time, space, and support to reflect and explore the purposes of our work, including areas that may challenge our preconceptions and habits.

Peter Alsop’s “Thoughts to Chew” column has for many years offered perspectives on these larger questions that often linger in the corners of our minds. In the future, Peter and I have agreed to collaborate together to offer responses to your big questions, in kind of a “Dear Abby” format. Please send them directly to Stuart at Stuart@stotts.com. We will endeavor to enlighten, empathize, explore, and hopefully entertain you in response to what you send in. Thanks!